Monday, November 19, 2007

Books for smart nonphilosophers

When a smart and well-educated person with no philosophy background asks you for something interesting in philosophy to read, what do you recommend to them? I'm being asked for a recommendation right now, and I'm unsure about what to say. Books and papers are both acceptable. In fact, papers might even be better, because they're bite-sized.

14 comments:

Edward said...

I like to recommend "From A Logical Point of View". Then again, I've always thought of philosophy as a fairly accessible discipline.

Joshua R said...

Not being trained as a philosopher, I can offer only the bits I have lapped up in my dilettante wanderings. The first book on philosophy I ever read was The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. I do not know how history has treated his summation of the great philosophers, but I found the book an engaging read and informative as well. It might still serve as a good beginning point for someone not fully versed in the two thousand sum odd year literature of the field.

Beyond that general introductory text, I guees it partly comes down to what subset of philosophy they may be interested in: politics, ethics, language, etc etc.

Brock said...

Russell's Problems of Philosophy is what I hand to people.

Conee and Sider's Riddles of Existence is another possibility.

quixote said...

I'm partial to the Introducing series, but I only look at the pictures.

Reid said...

The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels is sharp, light, and covers the basics of ethics in a fun sort of way. Not for Ayn Rand supporters though.

I gave a copy of Frankfurt's essay On Bullshit to my law school chums at graduation, and they seemed to like it, though a few missed the essential point.

Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a good introduction to existentialism, free will, and Humeian harrumphing about not knowing a damn thing. Good for English major-types.

For Physics people, I have been astounded by the online only, 1,500 page, Motion Mountain an ongoing work in which physicist Christopher Schiller explains the entire universe. Most amazingly, he has a great grasp of philosophy, and is able to relate the study of physics to a lot of the pre-Socratics. If quantum physics means that you cannot completely measure anything, what does this mean for Zeno's paradox? If, at the quantum level, there is no distinction between mass, vacuum, space, and time, have we solved the whole one thing/many thing debate? Is the universe something or nothing? Is there more than one universe? Wither Godel? He covers a lot of German Mathematicians as well.

Dana Watson said...

Okay, this is going to seem like a strange suggestion, but I'm a non-philosopher myself, so I'm coming at this more tangentially. When I was working at the bookstore, I had to read Michael Blastland's The Only Boy in the World: A Father Explores the Mysteries of Autism. Blastland is a BBC reporter whose son has nonverbal, severe autism. He uses each chapter of the book to explore the philosophical implications of his son's behavior (autism being a behaviorally defined disorder, after all.) Specifically, he questions the standard philosophical definitions of what makes us human, looking at things like love and compassion, interactions with others, language and communication, and the ability to learn from the environment and through novel situations.

Again, not knowing what kind of philosophy your friend is interested in, I have no idea if this will appeal, but it was interesting enough to make me actually go and look up a number of the books he mentions throughout and try to find out more about several different philosophical theories. Which, for me, is saying a lot.

Clayton said...

I've given out about 6 copies of Blackburn's Think. I think it's fantastic as an intro to philosophy for smart non-philosophers.

wringe said...

Tom Nagel's 'What Does it All Mean'?

I think 'Mortal Questions' ,might be OK come to think of it....

Roman Altshuler said...

Are you looking specifically for something contemporary? Korsgaard's "Sources" seems like it should be accessible to a non-philosopher, and worth reading.

"Philosophy for Beginners", despite being a comic book, is great. Wrong on many many counts, but still quite good, and gets funnier the more philosophy you actually learn.

If you're not going for contemporary stuff specifically (and why would you? I mean, it's all just refinement and complexification of stuff that's centuries old), why not go for the classics? A Plato dialogue or two (Euthyphro, Phaedo, Crito); maybe Mill's "On Liberty," Descartes's "Meditations," Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism." Or, there's that book called "Genealogy of Morals" by some wacky German author, which was one of the first bits of philosophy I read back in the day...

Matt said...

Russell's History of Philosophy is a very nice and highly readable introduction even if often lacking as history. It's not short, though. (It is easy to read in pieces.) For political philosophy Jo Wolff's _Introduction to Political Philosophy_ is excellent- not long, very clear, good at making the import clear, etc. I've also heard good things about Adam Swift's _Political Philosophy: A Guide for Students and Politicians_ but have not read it myself.

Rico said...

There is no way that a non-philosopher could understand Korsgaard's "Sources." What in God's name were you thinking, Roman?

The short Blackburn books are not very good, in my opinion, although Blackburn of course has some great stuff.

I'd go for the aforementioned Russell and Sider / Conee. Scruton has a couple decent introductory books, too.

bend said...

forgetting about actual, you know, philosophy books, I think Ried is looking in the right direction with Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead. However, that's the wrong Stoppard play. The best Stoppard play for little philosophical nuggets, indeed any play, save Shakespeare or the classics, is Arcadia.

That's the answer, Arcadia.

Rachael said...

I think it helps to tailor the book to the non-philosopher's background. (Philosophy is such a hodge-podge of unrelated topics that this is unsurprising.) My father, a scientist, was very taken with Peter Godfrey-Smith's philosophy of science reader. I've been enjoying Maudlin's The Metaphysics of Physics, and it seems temperamentally suited to the physicists I know, but I haven't yet tried it on my physicist parnter.

When I was 10 years old and hadn't encountered any philosophy, I was smitten with a book called The Paradoxicon, which provided an overview of philosophical paradoxes, including the liar paradox, the sorites, and Simpson's paradox. R.M. Sainsbury's Paradox does something similar, and does it very well. (Fewer visual tricks, though.)

Although I don't think it counts as an intro to philosophy, I strongly recommend Bruno Ernst's book The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher for anyone who might be interested in the philosophical aspects of Escher's work.

Roman Altshuler said...

Rico--I have to respond: I think just as much of Korsgaard's "Sources" should make sense to smart non-philosophers as to philosophers. True--I think a good deal of that book doesn't make much sense (though it has the advantage of coming packaged with critical essays that clearly explain why those parts don't make sense), but the parts that do make sense are really good. Plus: there's the advantage of making normativity interesting.